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South Korea weighs tougher curbs as COVID-19 cases hit 9-month high

South Korea weighs tougher curbs as COVID-19 cases hit 9-month high

Parents place candles during a special service to wish for their children's success in the college entrance exams at the Jogyesa Buddhist temple in Seoul. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL: South Koreans were urged to cancel Christmas and New Year parties on Friday (Dec 4) as daily coronavirus cases hit a nine-month high and the government will impose tighter social-distancing rules in Seoul to halt a third wave of infections.

Health authorities reported 629 new COVID-19 infections, the highest in South Korea since a first wave peaked in February and early March. 

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KCDA) said on Friday that 600 of the newly confirmed patients were domestically transmitted cases — nearly 80 per cent of them in the densely populous Seoul area, which has been at the centre of a recent viral resurgence.

The new cases took the country’s total to 36,332 for the pandemic, with 536 deaths related to COVID-19. 

Seoul will require most establishments to close at 9pm each day, acting Seoul mayor Seo Jeong-hyup told a briefing on Friday, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The measure take effect Saturday and comes after Seoul alone reported 295 new coronavirus infections as of midnight Thursday.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun had said earlier that the situation was critical and the government would decide on Sunday whether to upgrade restrictions to include the closure of karaoke bars and limits on religious gatherings to just 20 people.

"It's been 10 days since we upgraded the social distancing rules to phase 2 in the Seoul metropolitan area, but the transmission still seems to be uncontainable," Chung told a government meeting.

READ: South Korea students sit college exam behind plastic barriers and in hospitals due to COVID-19

KDCA said 463 or more than three quarters of the latest locally transmitted cases were from Seoul and nearby areas. 

"This is the largest infection in the Seoul metropolitan area since the start of the coronavirus outbreak," health ministry official Yoon Tae-ho told a briefing.

Health authorities called on people to cancel all year-end gatherings and parties during a month-long "special virus prevention period" from Dec 7 to Jan 3.

"Please hold online celebrations especially for Christmas, religious events and New Year sunrise festivals if possible, and we urge you to not host any parties or events at hotels," Yoon said.

STUDENTS ON THE MOVE

Authorities are concerned that university entrance exams - which nearly half a million students sat on Thursday - and admissions tests over the next two weeks could prove to be another source of contagion.

At least 207,000 students will move around the country for university admission tests this weekend and 192,000 the next, Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae told a briefing.

READ: Commentary: Is South Korea doing enough to tackle its new COVID-19 wave?

"It is no exaggeration to say that the safety of South Korea depends on the test-takers," Yoo said.

Karaoke bars and internet cafes are popular with high school students and have been the source of several COVID-19 clusters in the past.

Under current Phase 2 restrictions, karaoke bars and internet cafes can operate with limited seating and need to close at 9pm. There are nearly 30,000 karaoke bars and over 9,500 internet cafes and game rooms nationwide.

READ: South Korea reaches deal to buy AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine candidate: Report

Tighter restrictions would be a blow to Asia's fourth-largest economy, which reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent in October, the highest since July.

"Small business owners and self-employed businesses are the most affected by social-distancing measures. We are very sorry for that," health ministry official Yoon said.

"We think the best way is to reduce the number of confirmed cases as soon as possible and relieve their anxiety. The government continues to discuss economic support for the businesses."

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Source: AGENCIES/lk

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